Our bodies need the right nutrients to function as they should, which includes vitamins and minerals. The best way of getting these nutrients is through eating a healthy and balanced diet, but if your diet is deficient in one area, you may want to consider using a supplement. It is important to state, however, that taking the same supplement over a long period of time could be harmful.
There are several types of supplements available depending on what vitamin or mineral you require. The vitamins in question are either fat-soluble or water-soluble, while minerals can help strengthen teeth and bones, and trace elements such as iodine also help us function correctly.
Fat-soluble vitamins are generally found in fatty foods such as fatty cuts of meat, dairy products, liver, oily fish and vegetable oil. The vitamins which are fat-soluble are vitamins A, D, E and K and excess levels of these are stored in the body - taking too much of these vitamins, especially as supplements, can therefore lead to (dangerously) high levels which can be very harmful.
Water-soluble vitamins include vitamins B and C and are needed more frequently in the diet as they are not stored in the body - instead, excess levels are passed out of the body in the urine as waste, and this means that taking extra supplements is generally not harmful - other than to your wallet or purse! In foods they can be lost by cooking, especially when vegetables are boiled. This means that steaming is generally a better way to cook as it ensures fewer of these delicate nutrients are lost.
Eating a healthy diet
Although there is a huge range of supplements available, most of us wouldn't need them if our diets were both healthy and balanced. Eating the right amounts of the right foods would help to ensure our bodies remain healthy, which is far more preferable than taking artificial supplements.
A healthy diet is based on complex carbohydrates such as breads, potatoes, rice and pulses. It is also rich in fruits and vegetables, water and fibre with moderate amounts of milk and dairy products, meat, fish or milk/meat alternatives and limited amounts of foods containing sugars and unhealthy fats.
No single food can provide all the essential nutrients that the body needs so it's very important to consume a wide variety of foods to ensure an adequate range of the right nutrients for good health and wellbeing.
These healthy eating guidelines are appropriate for most people but remember, you should always talk to your doctor or specialist if you have any medical conditions that either affect your diet or which may be worsened by any changes to your diet.
When should I take supplements?
Certain groups of people may need to take vitamin or mineral supplements if they are at risk of being deficient, or depending on what stage of life they are in. Pregnant women should take folic acid for the first 12 weeks, which can help prevent neural tube defects, and they should also take vitamin D supplements. Vitamin D is also recommended for children between six months and five years, and people over the age of 65, as well as those who aren't exposed to the sun very often and people of African or Asian ethnicity due to their darker skin.
Children between six months and four years should also be given supplements for vitamins A and C, as they may not be getting what they need from their diets at this stage of their life.
All women with osteoporosis should consider supplementing their diet with calcium and vitamin D and if you have a specific type of anaemia called iron-deficiency anaemia, your doctor may also recommend iron supplements to make up for the deficiency.